Last fall, I became assistant coach for the Purple Panthers, my 8-year-old daughter’s soccer team. I didn’t really intend to become a coach. I was just there every Saturday morning, often in the bitter cold, helping out, playing goalie, running drills and making jokes. After Hurricane Sandy hit, Robert, the head coach, spent a number of weekends at the Rockaways helping out and I took over the top job.
The Purple Panthers are part of GWYSL, an unwieldy acronym for Greenpoint Williamsburg Youth Soccer League, which holds weekly games at McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Lady Liberty must have cracked a smile from the other side of the river looking down at this portrait of America. The 8-member Panthers (Naire, Syncere, Madison, Zoe, Jocelyn, Tessa, Elizabeth and Phoebe) were of 5 different ethnicities and multiple neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn and Queens. Some odd mix of fate and American magnetism put these girls on the same field every Saturday running, yelling and working together to beat other equally diverse teams.
Phoebe had been an adequate player in previous years. Signing her up wasn’t really about the soccer. It was that I needed to spend time with her. She was growing up too quick. The weekdays were just a giant hustle. I saw her in transit, shuttling her to school or to bed between emails and texts.
My life at Wanderlust is based in the future. We plan. We project. We discuss what will happen. We create from the future for the future. There is nothing wrong with shaping what will be but that reality removes you from the present moment.
I was on hold the other day, waiting for a conference call to kick in, and the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” was playing. I got so into it and started singing. I started praying that my colleague had forgotten the call or lost the passcode. I kept singing. I got inside the music because there was simply nothing else to do. For about 3 minutes, FreeConferenceCall.com brought me into the present moment.
About one minute into the first game of the season, Phoebe stole the ball and scored a goal. Neither of us is sure how it happened, but Phoebe scored 6 goals in the first game. She just took the ball, dribbled it all the way down the field, around people, through people, and kicked it into the net time after time.
And this happened in the second game and third game. Her confidence began to soar. She quickly became the leader of the team, encouraging her teammates and barking orders. She became a favorite of the random group of moms. Saturday mornings became a beacon for me. I couldn’t wait to get out there and roam the sidelines. I rediscovered a feeling that I had not had in 30 years when I played competitive tennis – the horribly addictive apple in your throat, nauseas stomach that you hate to love.
In the 6th game, the Panthers met their fiercest opponent, the Silver Eagles. The Eagles had some size to them and were coached by 2 dads who clearly wanted sons. They were rough. And I saw Phoebe intimidated for the first time as she got pushed around. Halfway through the first quarter, Phoebe took herself out of the game. She whimpered softly on the sideline. She feigned injury, grabbing her ankle. And the Eagles scored twice.
It was the first time the Panthers trailed all season – 2-0 at halftime. During the break, Phoebe and I sat quietly while she gathered herself. It was hard to know what to tell her. “Just have fun?” “Don’t get pushed around?” Years ago, Phoebe met Herbie Hancock backstage at Carnegie Hall in his dressing room. Herbie has a ritual prior to performing that includes Buddhist chanting. He taught Phoebe “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” and they chanted together for five minutes. This chant is something that Phoebe and I have done together in airplanes, saunas, taxi cabs and other random locations. So, we chanted on the sidelines that day, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.”
Phoebe quickly scored at the beginning of the second half. The Eagles were tough. They fought hard. Their coach yelled them on. At the end of the 3rd quarter, Phoebe gathered the ball deep in their end. There was a thick scrum in front of the net. Phoebe maneuvered about and launched the ball. It caromed of the post and back into the field. She chased it down with the Eagles’ large defender in close pursuit. She kicked it again. It was partially blocked by the defender whose momentum carried her forward and knocked Phoebe hard to the ground. Her fall was palpable to the spectators – a thud on the cold turf. Once again, she got up, fierce and undeterred, she took the ball for the third time and laced it into the top of the net.
We roared from the sideline. She pumped her fist like it was an innate reaction. And her teammates high fived. That was it for the Eagles. Broken, they allowed the Panthers another quick goal.
And then something happened which I will never forget in my life. With 30 seconds left, Phoebe stole the ball near the Panther’s net. She kicked it ahead and chased after it. She continued to dribble the length of the field flanked by her fleet-footed teammates. She approached the open net, cocked her foot, and softly laid the ball in front of the net and yelled, “Shoot Madison, shoot!” And Madison scored her first goal of the season.
The game ended. And the ramshackle group of Panther moms ran out onto the field and starting hugging Phoebe, pulling her up and down. For a brief second, she looked over at me and gave me the thumbs up and continued embracing her teammates.
Phoebe was living in the present moment. But she had done something far greater than that, far superior than anything I am capable of, for in that moment, she had found compassion and grace.
My daughter gave me a great gift that Saturday morning. She made me incredibly proud. But, more, she gave me what I needed: the present moment. And it felt awfully good.